Wednesday, August 25, 2010

POET - The Largest US Producer of Fuel Ethanol

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POET is somewhat more publicity-shy than its competitors, but it is decidedly aggressive when it comes to its ethanol business. You might not know it, but POET is far and away the largest US-based ethanol producer currently, operating 26 plants producing 1.5 billion gallons annually. The technology is surprisingly pedestrian, based on conversion of starch, entirely derived from corn, fermented by yeast. Based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and with plants scattered throughout the corn belt, POET's business model is built around partnerships with farmers and small communities, where there is a lot of available crop land.

Although current production is corn-based, POET sees the writing on the wall as regards to the use of food crops for fuel ethanol production. The company has been busy developing a cellulose-based alternative feedstock: corn cobs. According to CEO Jeff Broin, enough corn cobs are available in the USA to produce 5 billion gallons of ethanol each year. A pilot plant in Scotland, SD is already operating to develop the process to accomplish this, and POET is partnering with Novozymes to commercialize cellulose to ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. In addition to all the corn at POET, there is some apple pie as well.

POET announced its selection by the DOE for Project LIBERTY, which came complete with American flags and, more importantly an $80 million grant to demonstrate the cellulose to ethanol conversion. POET does not talk about its methods for pre-treatment of cellulose to be able to convert it into fermentable sugars, but one can infer that it is some sort of already available steam explosion method combined with enzymes. Plant construction is scheduled over the next 2 years. As far as costs, go, POET's own blog says that the cost of its cellulosic ethanol is now about $1 per gallon more costly than ethanol produced from starch, and projects that the gap will be closed to about $0.50 by the time the first commercial plant commences operation in 2011. That is a surprisingly honest self-assessment!

Copyright 2009 by David Rozzell

David Rozzell maintains a web site and blog dedicated to the latest developments and news in biofuels, biocatalysis, and industrial biotechnology. For informative, sometimes amusing, always opinionated analysis go to He has 25 years of experience in biocatalysis and industrial biotechnology, and speaks frequently at international symposia. He is available for consulting projects. Contact him at

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